Andrew Denton on Improvisation, Interviewing & Liquid Time

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

AD              Andrew Denton


AL               Now, isn’t it easy for people in our socioeconomic position to criticise cancel culture because it’s not coming for us?

AD              But it is coming for us. It’s coming for everyone. I see cancel culture as a circular gun. Yes, you may be firing it at who you want to fire it at right now, but eventually you’re going to fire it at yourself.

AL               Welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   It’s hard for me to imagine Australian comedy television without Andrew Denton. Via The Money or the Gun, Live and Sweaty, Enough Rope, Denton and a slew of other shows, he’s shaped Australian television and helped birth shows such as The Chaser.

                   I last interviewed Andrew a generation ago, in 1993, when I was a journalist on the Sydney University student newspaper, Honi Soit, and I’ll ask him a few questions about that interview in our conversation today. Andrew, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

AD              Thank you, Andrew.

AL               So I’ve talked in the introduction a bit about the people who you’ve influenced, but I wanted to start off with the people who influenced you. What shaped your knowledge of what Australian television was and how could it be? And maybe you’ll tell us a little bit about Norman Gunston, for those who don’t know him.

AD              Okay. Just before I answer that, I’m still trying to get my head around the fact you interviewed me when you were at Sydney University. So I do feel like the grandfather of you right now.

AL               You were 33.

AD              I was 33. Okay. So Norman Gunston. In 1974/75, Norman Gunston, who was played by the actor, Garry McDonald, was a spoof to night show host who was as cringingly Australian as it’s possible to be, but he had on these extraordinary guests, people like Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney, and he would ask them the most outrageous questions, not in that shock way that we might have got used to with someone like Ali G, but as this character.

                   He had little bits of toilet paper on his face where he’d cut himself shaving, he had this horrendous combover, and he spoke in a cringingly Australian way, and he was trying to be uber cool and he was anything but. And he would ask these apparently sincere questions. So, for instance, at Paul McCartney’s press conference, he said to him, is it true that you’re dead? Which was, of course… And people from overseas mostly loved him.

                   And perhaps one of the greatest moments in Australian political history, Andrew, which says a lot about Australia, is that when Gough was dismissed, Norman Gunston and his team, and I ended up working with his Executive Producer, flew down and were on the steps of Old Parliament House as all that turmoil was arising, and they filmed it.

                   And there is some footage of Norman, in his character, going up to Bob Hawke, I don’t remember the question, but Bob saying to him, ah, Norman, this is too serious. And Norman just looks to the camera and goes, you’re right, this is too serious.

                   So, long before Tom Gleeson, he was on the ABC. It became this huge hit and a huge surprise hit. He ran a public campaign to win the Gold Logie, and he did. And I had grown up watching Don and Bert Newton and Graham Kennedy and Ernie Sigley, and particularly Graham and Bert had a lot of talent, but basically it was the same cosy club of people on Australian television. And when I saw Norman Gunston, I thought, yes, you’re speaking to me. You’re saying that this is boring.

AL               So when you were on Doug Mulray in the 1980s, were you subconsciously thinking, I want to be Norman Gunston?

AD              No, I didn’t want to be Norman Gunston, but what I liked about Gunston was the iconoclasm of it and I certainly wanted to rattle some cages, not mindlessly, just cages I felt deserved some rattling. And one of those cages was, as I said, the cosy nature of Australian television, where youth television, because I was then youth, I was in my late 20s, was pretty much confined to rock clips, video clip shows, and that was it. There was nothing really representing people under the age of 30.

                   As I said, you know that old thing they used to say about the Australian cricket team, it was harder to get out of it than into it? Well, that was very much the case of Australian television. Once you were in, you were set and you would have a show until you died or possibly beyond.

AL               And you also were shaped through improv acting too. I got to know you, I think first, through Theatresports. I was playing in the early 1990s. You were by then a judge, having come runner-up in the Cranston Cup in 1987. Now, what did you take from Theatresports and the improv scene in Sydney?

AD              Ah, very important things. And not just me. The ABC ran a one-time television series. It didn’t quite work for television. But you’ll also see in that first series alongside me, in their first appearance, is Glenn Robbins and Shaun Micallef. I took really important lessons which have stood me in good stead professionally, and sometimes personally, ever since.

                   The first two lessons were don’t block and don’t wimp. And what that means is when somebody throws an idea at you, don’t just go no. Try and play with it. So it enforced a mental agility. Even if the idea seemed impossible, it built your muscles and mental agility. But the best lesson I learnt which I’ve employed many times, and not just in my career, is when in doubt, change the routine. So when something feels like it’s not working for you, change it up, change it down, move it sideways.

AL               I remember being struck by one of my Theatresports teachers, who always said, if you walk off the stage and you feel as though the scene has bombed, you wave your hand behind your backside as though you’ve just farted on the stage. And she said, it’s incredibly important in order to separate the scene from the actor. So you don’t step off going, I’m a hopeless actor. You step off saying, I did a thing that bombed, but me as a person still continues.

AD              That’s very good advice. And I would say that was the other key lesson from Theatresports, which is that failure is all right. It’s okay to fail, and you will fail. It’s not that you fail. It’s what you learn from failure, how you move on from it. Sometimes failure is extremely funny.

AL               One of the things you’ve talked about as maybe a failure is your time in doing House from Hell, one of the early forerunners of Big Brother and those reality TV shows. How do you feel when you look back on your role in that creation of a hothouse environment for young people?

AD              Well, I feel, first of all, that I missed out on my best shot of being a billionaire because the House from Hell, which was a radio competition I devised whereby we put, I think it was six or eight people in a house for many months and made the house this kind of maligned presence that they had to survive…

AL               Give us an example of some of the things you did.

AD              Well, an example was, for instance, I think on one occasion, because we were broadcasting every day, the people that lived in the house complained about the furniture. And so they all had to go out to work and they came back and there was no furniture in the house at all. So then they complained about that, quite reasonably. So the next day when they came home, there was so much furniture they couldn’t move. It was literally stacked to the ceiling. So the house was like this living thing, only we were controlling it.

                   And the reason I say I missed out on being a billionaire is that many years later, the creator of Big Brother, which obviously was the one that along with Survivor changed the face of modern television… The House from Hell preceded that. And when he learnt about it, he was terrified that we were going to get in ahead of him.

                   Anyway, to answer your question, that was done as a radio competition. And it came about because when I first went to Triple M, I inherited a competition called Living at [unclear], which had four people that had to live in a car, and the last one out won it. And over the course of however many weeks it ran, these people were actually really interesting. They struck up friendships. And I thought that dynamic, that human dynamic is fascinating, which is what led me to a much bigger idea, the House from Hell.

                   However, as we got into the House from Hell, and there was no guidelines for it, nobody had really done this before, but we must have had enough insight into what we were doing to… We did psychologically test people to see if they were compatible to, I guess, this pressure.

                   But something happened about two months in. It went for a long time, Andrew. The youngest contestant, we discovered something about her we hadn’t known, which is that the year before, one of her closest friends had taken their own life, which put her, as a young women, in that risk category. And she was getting quite depressed.

                   And we immediately took her out of that environment, sat her down and said, look, this is just a radio competition. Nothing is worth your health. We can contrive to take you out of this. We’ll work out… And she said, no, I want to stay. So we had, I think, a month to go and we changed everything from being competitive and combative to being constructive. And the final challenges we set was each person achieving a life goal.

                   But I remember saying to the people I worked with and to the management at the radio station I worked with at the time, we’re never going to go back there again. This is playing with fire. And I do believe there’s been a lot of irresponsible behaviour since, whereby people… Their emotions and the turmoil we as the producers have some control over, if not a lot of control over, can be damaging. And the only defence I have for myself is we did it first and we came to realise it. We weren’t able to go to school on anyone else.

AL               So you’ve become much more sensitive to those issues as you’ve gone through your career. And I suppose, I think, in some senses, the bookend to that House from Hell incident is the way you managed Angry Anderson’s interview on Enough Rope, which seemed to be done with such an extraordinary degree of care and sensitivity to allow him to tell something of the story of how the loss of his son had affected him. Tell me about how you managed that.

AD              Well, thank you for mentioning that. And the first thing I should explain is that it wasn’t just me. I had two producers, and one in particular, who spent a lot of time on multiple occasions talking with Angry and his daughter ahead of that interview.

                   And collectively, we said to Angry, you should only do this interview if you think there is value in it, and not even necessarily value to you but whatever you define value as being. If you have any doubts that there’s value in this, then don’t do it. So we, right from the start, tried to set a ground rule of this is for the greater good, but only if you feel it is for the greater good.

                   And it was an unusual interview in that the questions and the answers weren’t negotiated beforehand, but the emotional temperature was. And one of the things that Angry made very clear is he didn’t want to actually use his son’s name, which is unusual in a conversation like that.

                   So when we got to the actual interview, and some people in the audience found that very peculiar, we had already negotiated as safe a space as we possibly could, because I can’t imagine a greater pain than that that Angry and his family have been through.

                   And I work with a group of people, a really intelligent, interesting group of people, quite a wide range of people. And we spent a long time discussing, what’s the best way to have this conversation? This is a really hard conversation to have in private, let alone in public. And so we did that thing which is I think often useful in many forms of communication. We started the interview by telling the story of what the story of the interview was going to be. We’re going to talk about these four things, and let’s start with this one. But it was still deeply emotionally fraught.

                   And I have faced criticism in my career for, quote/unquote, making people cry. It’s not a criticism I really appreciate because I can assure you, when that happens, it’s a very uncomfortable thing. It’s not something I seek. But at the same time, I don’t think tears are an emotion we should be ashamed of. They’re a very important human emotion.

                   But I was keenly aware that Angry in particular was so fragile, and I didn’t want him to break, so I was trying to help him not to break. And fortunately, his young… Or not young. His strong daughter was there and she was fantastic, and in a way, she helped… She was almost like the other interviewer. She helped guide her father through what he needed to say. And it’s funny, even as we talk about it now, I feel myself back there. It was a very weighty thing to carry.

AL               You’re one of Australia’s great interviewers, and famously, you don’t have a set of notes in front of you when you’re interviewing. Tell us about what your preparation looks like in the lead up to an interview?

AD              Usually, it’s a research brief and my researchers are under instructions, to go back to Theatresports, to look left. Don’t just go to the Wikipedia, don’t just go to the chronology, but look somewhere else. Look to see not what Andrew Leigh said about his career but what did Bob Hawke say about Andrew Leigh’s career, or what did Anthony Albanese say in his cups [?] about Andrew Leigh once? So first of all, look left.

                   So I’ll get a research brief about anywhere between 60 and 120 pages. I’ll usually listen to interviews or watch interviews because I want to get a sense of how the person is. I’ll sit with my producers and we’ll talk at length about that research brief and what we think are the things we would like to know and how we might address them. Sometimes that’s straightforward. Sometimes, as with Angry, it’s very complex. And I will take note of questions, suggested questions I like.

                   Then I will go away and I’ll spend probably about a day writing an interview script. It’s usually broken up into little sections. There’s a logic flow to it. And I’ll bring that back to the meeting and we’ll pick it apart. Then I’ll go back and rewrite it. And if this sounds hugely anal, it is, because sometimes just the right word or just the wrong word in a question can make all the difference to how that person hears the question.

                   So I remember once interviewing the singer, Natalie Imbruglia. And she had had great success in England and then she kind of fell down a rabbit hole. And while there was no clear reference to it, I wondered if, leading the life she’d led, she partied a lot. And I remember I didn’t want to ask her did you do drugs, so the question in the end was along the lines of, it must have been tempting to flirt with drugs at this time, which was an open way of asking the question. If I’d said did you take drugs, I think that the shutters would’ve gone up.

                   So a lot of thought was given to sometimes a word in a question. Then having done all that, I would memorise it, plus I’d have this… I wanted a map in my head of that person’s world, not just of what are the questions and the answers, so that if it went somewhere unexpected, I was comfortable in that world, comfortable enough to move to another part of it.

AL               Do you find interviews work better when you’re doing the organisation thematically or chronologically? I remember a New Yorker writer once saying, if you’ve got a choice between the two, go chronological because humans are storytelling creatures and it’s tough to organise material in your head thematically. But maybe you’ve got a different view.

AD              I always start chronologically. So the first thing in a research brief is the chronology of that person’s life, the key points. And it’s not just career. It’s when were they born, when did their parents die, when were their kids born, all the key points. So that’s, if you like, the metronome.

                   But some interviews, the person suggests something entirely different. One of my favourites was a British actress called Miriam Margolyes, fans of Harry Potter will know her as Professor Sprout, who was the most wonderfully candid interviewee I think I’ve ever met. And each interview brief would also start with…

AL               Well, we should be clear about that. You asked her about oral sex and she very happily dived into answering the question.

AD              She did. And in fact, she said… And am I allowed to use fruity language, Andrew?

AL               Yes.

AD              Are you comfortable with that? She said, and to give you an example of her candour, she said, my parents always told me, don’t fuck, suck. But the thing about… So each research brief would have two or three quotes which would give you a sense of where that person was coming from.

                   But when I got Miriam’s research brief, it had a page and a half of quotes, and every one of them was a bellringer. So I actually built that interview around her quotes, and including being told by the queen to shut up. And also, in fact even before the interview, one of my producers came and said she’d, to go back to the theme of farting, done this enormous fart right in front of them and apologised.

                   So Miriam was just one of these people I felt I could ask anything. And that’s right, one of the quotes was about… I said, you’ve said that you quite like picking your nose in public. Why is that? And there was a pause, and she went, discovery.

AL               And then, sometimes, it doesn’t work. Why didn’t your interview with Jeff Kennett work?

AD              Well, that was absolutely my mistake. And that was a really good example of structuring an interview wrong. So I had first encountered Jeff before he became Premier of Victoria at a pilot for a show Wendy Harmer did. And he was just a brilliantly entertaining communicator, funny, sharp.

                   And then I had met him several times privately. And Jeff famously and wonderfully got very involved with Beyond Blue. And I was speaking to him privately, and he didn’t say it in as many words but it was clear to me that Beyond Blue was something that was also in his life, not just something he had focused his work on.

                   And obviously, the point of the interview was to talk about Beyond Blue, and I was very happy to do that and I wanted to get to where the line was between his work and where this sat in his world. And I guess being a politician and, with due respect, my least favourite category of people to interview for reasons which won’t surprise you, with some exceptions, he saw the interview as being very transactional.

                   And it was one of those interviews where I was more chronological. Because I thought, in my thinking, if I’m going to get to more difficult questions about whether or not you’ve dealt with depression, Jeff, I couldn’t just go straight there. So I was going through chronologically and he just became more and more like, no, I just want to talk about Beyond Blue. And it just didn’t work. If I had started at Beyond Blue perhaps and then circled back round to his own emotional state, that might have worked better.

                   But, back to Theatresports, not everything works. Sometimes, a failure… I remember, famously, at the end of an interview with Russell Crowe, who I’ve known for many years, I challenged him to a gladiator-like duel. And the ABC, with its budget of $8.50, we actually had extras dressed up as Roman soldiers. It was a big, ridiculous set piece.

                   And Russell absolutely refused to play along. He just stood there like, no, I’m not doing it. And people said to me afterwards, wasn’t that embarrassing? I said, no, I actually thought it cast a pretty interesting light on Russell. It was quite funny.

AL               Why is that? Because he was not willing to go off the script?

AD              He needed to be in control.

AL               Right.

AD              And that was okay. So I wasn’t embarrassed. I was amused. It was kind of funny. And I thought we actually found out something about him that I wouldn’t have found out any other way, but it was a very tortuous way to get there.

AL               Since you mention political interviewing, I just notice a massive contrast between the sorts of interviews I do once every couple of years when I bring a book out, which are a true conversation, and the standard political interviews which are much more akin to an interrogation, where the object is not to explore ideas together but to garner a confession. So I think that’s part of the reason why so many political interviews are essentially unwatchable.

                   What is it that you’ve learned from interviewing which flows through to the rest of your life? Most of our listeners won’t be professional interviewers, but what are some of the things about being a good interviewer that flow through to being a good person?

AD              Well, I think the basic skills of interviewing I have always had and I’ve tried to nurture, which is to be as strongly empathetic as I can. My son told me something recently, I don’t know where it came from, but it was a lovely way of thinking about we all have moments in our lives where people turn to us seeking help or advice.

                   And the quote he gave me was, do you want me to fix this, or do you want me just to listen? And I liked that. And so I think it’s something I try and apply in my life as much as possible, which is to listen. This might surprise my family, when I say that.

                   One of the things that particularly Enough Rope, which was… I can’t remember. It was 600 interviews in five years. It was like a big public university of the human soul. And one of the things I saw so clearly… There’s an American songwriter called Loudon Wainwright the Third who said that our childhood is never history. Childhood is always there. And what I saw, almost without exception…

AL               Very Freudian.

AD              Yes, is that childhood is the rocket fuel for most people, it’s either, I so want to emulate one parent or the other, or I so don’t want to be that person, that if you want the answer to where most people are coming from, go there.

AL               Well, let’s go there. You father, Kit Denton, wrote The Breaker, which was later turned into a successful movie and was a real man’s man. How did growing up with a father like that shape you? And what are the lessons you learned for being a father, both good and bad?

AD              That’s a complex question. Dad was an extremely educated, self-educated in many ways, talented, funny, very funny man who was capable of a fierce temper. It was a bit like when a bush fire crowns through the forest. It sucked the oxygen out of the room.

                   He was both very loving and very demanding. And I think all of those things, in different ways, have appeared in my own parenting, and not all of them in ways I like and not all of them in ways my son has liked. And we’ve talked about that quite a lot over recent years.

                   But it’s also probably not right just to talk about my father because my mother was a much gentler person and she used to worry about me a lot. I think she thought I was… I think both my parents thought I was a bit unusual, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but they just worried how I would fit in. And they needn’t have worried because I wasn’t that concerned about fitting in.

                   What else can I say about dad? Look, it’s so hard to summarise a parent and that relationship in a few words. I think my father was very ethical. He was very strong-minded. Professionally, he was in my industry but from a much older generation.

                   He had a powerful influence on me, but not the way he would have perhaps chosen, which was I saw him and many of his friends who were talented people, I saw how often they were left at the altar by a network or a production company. And so I came into the entertainment industry unusually combative about contract negotiations and absolutely prepared to fight my quarter. And that stood me in very good stead, I might add.

AL               You were very young when you set up Zapruder Films. That’s really striking.

AD              Yes, pretty young. And I did that because… Well, he just passed away this week, but Glenn Wheatley, remember that famous story about him standing on the stages, the bass player of the Masters Apprentices, and looking out and thinking, gee, management is doing well out of this, maybe I should be a manager. I came to the conclusion that as I was coming up with my own ideas and in fact, from a very early age, was bringing many of the key people in to work with me, then I should control those ideas.

                   And I read an interview with Tom Gleisner from Working Dog once. And he said people accuse us of being a control freak, and I wonder in what sense that’s a bad thing. If you’re doing something and you want to be good, want it to be good, why wouldn’t you want to control it? And I thought that was a pretty good attitude. Of course, you can get to monomania and you can get to various levels of corporate psychopathy, and hopefully I’ve avoided those.

AL               Your dad also had a lot of close male friendships and even used to have blokes’ weekends. Have you taken that on in your own life? Has that shaped your relationships with other men?

AD              No, I have a lot of good male friends but I’m not blokey in the way dad was. Dad was the kind of guy that would… In fact, he was missing the top of two fingers and a bit of a thumb to an electric saw as he tried to build some furniture. Dad was an enthusiastic handyman whose work was not of the highest standard.

                   I can barely make toast, Andrew. I don’t have a practical bone in my body. I’m very pragmatic. I can organise. I can organise people to get things done when it comes to building things and so on. So I’m not a blokes’ bloke in that way. So my male friendships tend to be on a more cerebral… Yes, I drink and all that stuff, but a blokes’ weekend for dad and his friends was to play cards, drink a lot, smoke a lot, tell lots of jokes. That’s not quite me.

                   I’m a more solitary person for a start, and secondly, look, I guess I do have that one crucial bloke’s thing in Australia which is I do genuinely love sport, and that is the lubricant for all Australian men if they want to get on in society, is to be able to converse in fluent sportese. And that I can do, and I like to do it.

AL               Your dad also influenced you on the big campaign that you’ve been running in recent years around euthemasia. Tell us about his final days and how that led you into the euthanasia campaign.

AD              Well, dad had been sick for quite a long time. And he was sixty-seven and he was taken to our local hospital. He had congestive heart failure. And I don’t know if you have been through losing a parent, Andrew, but it’s profoundly shocking. And I had never been up close to death before, so that was shocking in itself.

                   But what stayed with me and with my sisters… And interestingly, we never spoke about this for maybe 20 years because we just kind of went, what was that? It’s not that anyone at the hospital was derelict. Far from it. They were doing their best. But dad was given the stuff which even today is largely what you’re given. It was morphine, which was supposed to settle his distress. And it didn’t. It simply didn’t.

                   And he spent three days of moaning and threshing, and he was in pain, he was suffering, and there seemed to be nothing that could be done. And there was nothing done other than what was allowed to be done. And it was shocking, but as I said, we put it away. We just thought, well, that’s what happens. That’s what happens at the end of life, and we’re in a hospital and they know what they’re doing, and what can you do?

                   It wasn’t until many, many years later when I read an article in The Monthly by an Australian writer called Margaretta Pos, whose father was Dutch, where obviously they’ve had euthanasia laws for many years. And he was dying of cancer and she got the message saying he has an appointed date for his euthanasia, come home. So she spent his last week with him.

                   And she described the entirely opposite week to my father’s, which was in a hospital, suffering, with us watching it, where he nobly and joyfully farewelled his friends, his family, his world, got all his affairs in order, spent his last night looking at the stars and listening to Mozart, was able to avoid the last horrible path of his cancer. And I just thought, why don’t we have that here? Why is that not possible? And so that’s what set me on a path which unexpectedly has come to dominate this part of my life.

AL               And the laws have changed remarkably quickly in the period. And you set up Go Gentle, and hopefully you’ll be able to disband the organisation within a year or two.

AD              Yes. Look, on one level, I would like to do that because the legislative task will be over. But I’ve come to realise, and maybe we will, but I’ve come to realise that passing the law is not the full story. The law has been in existence in Victoria now for two and a half years, and there has been some pretty disturbing behaviour from some medical professionals wishing to block or dissuade people from their legal right to use this law.

                   There’s still pockets of extreme arrogance, and I would say almost cruelty, within the medical profession towards end-of-life treatment, and there’s still a lot of understandable anxiety within the medical profession and the community more broadly about, well, how do we approach this thing? How do we talk to people about this? What’s the right way to listen? And I think the medical community at large is starting to ask itself questions, as it should, about are we over-treating people? Have we lost the human being inside the machines that go bing?

AL               Yes, I loved Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, and that discussion as to how potentially good palliative care can actually result in people living longer than they would without appropriate pain treatment.

AD              Well, the whole point of palliative care, which I strongly support, it’s the only area of medicine which is not curative. It’s about helping you live as fully and as well as you can as you’re going through the dying process. And that may be a long process. It may be over many, many months.

                   So it’s got a very different mission statement and it necessarily involves more than just medicine. It’s about psychology. It’s about emotional awareness. It’s about physical support. It’s about social support. It’s many things. The task the palliative care physicians set themselves is difficult and hugely admirable in my opinion.

AL               Now, I promised that I would come back to the interview we did a generation ago, back in 1993. You’d told me then, I didn’t want to be on television because I could be, because it seems to me that so much of Australian television is like that. I always wanted to be ideas-driven and to be enthusiastic about it and to enjoy it. Currently, I’ve reached the point where I’m none of these things. So I’d rather go back and do it when I feel I’ve got something worth doing. But you never took that step away from television, did you? So what was going on in your mind at that point in your life, in your early 30s?

AD              Well, I actually did take that step away a couple of times. And I’ll come back to that. So this is 1993?

AL               Yes.

AD              So I’d been working at the ABC then about five years. I think I had generated a lot of different shows in quite a short space of time. If you think of it like a musician, I’d done a lot of albums, trying different styles of music in a short space of time. And there was and still is, for me anyway, a huge nervous tension to being in public in that way. And I never particularly enjoyed that nervous tension.

                   So in essence, it just strung me out. It hollowed me out. I did a couple more years of television after that. I went to Channel 7, a show of which I remain pretty proud, but it really did leave me… It turned me into a quite unpleasant individual. And so I did step away from television I think for five or six years. I did radio. In fact, twice in my career, my media career, I’d literally just stopped without any idea of what I was going to do next, and came home and shut the door on both occasions for about a year.

                   When in doubt, change the routine. That was a really good thing to do. Fallow ground. That’s how you get a richer crop. And it was out of that silence the second time, after radio, that the idea for Enough Rope and the need for a show like Enough Rope became clear to me.

AL               Was this also a period in your life when you were first encountering depression?

AD              Actually, at Channel 7. I had encountered depression at different times in my life. And interestingly, we had a brilliant family GP who is still a friend, and he had alluded towards it but I never heard the word. And back in those days, depression, unlike today where we have R U OK? Day and Beyond Blue and this much more open public discussion about mental health, there wasn’t really that kind of discussion at that time.

                   So when I started at Channel 7, I put myself under enormous pressure. And I think after only about eight weeks, it was a live-two-nights-a-week tonight show, I had to take leave for a couple of weeks to get some mental health support. And it’s one of the things I’ve learnt over the years, but it was a painful lesson.

                   One of the things, the triggers for me and I think for a lot of people, is just putting yourself under constant stress, and so the need to be more watchful about not burning myself out. And I see this a lot, other people I know and people in the industry. It’s a very easy thing to do, and I suspect in your profession also very easy to do, but rarely admitted to. I think Andrew Robb, I always respected the fact that he actually publicly said, I’m struggling with my mental health.

AL               Absolutely. One question which I want to ask you on interviewing just before we move to some final issues. Where do you draw the line on who to interview? And how do you see the debate on cancel culture playing out? You interviewed Pauline Hanson and copped a lot of flak for that. Do you stand by that decision? And how do you draw the line now?

AD              Totally, I stand by that decision. And I feel some anxiety about what I see as a narrowing, a self-narrowing of the ABC’s remit, I argued at the time and I’d argue it again now, and I argued this privately when Sarah Ferguson interviewed Steve Bannon on the ABC.

                   And the reason I’m restricting this to the ABC is I think the ABC has an absolutely crucial role to play in the life of this country. To my way of looking at it, the ABC’s role is not to tell people what they should be thinking but to show people all sorts of different ways of thinking. It’s to improve the life of the mind.

                   And I had seen Pauline Hanson interviewed many times before we had her on Enough Rope. Certainly politically not where I stood. But what I’d seen in those interviews was what I felt was heat and not light. It’s impossible to pretend to be or to act as though I am oblivious to, I think, reasonable accusations that Pauline Hanson represents a strain of Australian thinking which, I’ll go back to the Natalie Imbruglia question, let’s be nice, flirts with racism.

                   I think simply getting to that point doesn’t necessarily tell you so much. What’s more interesting is to try and understand, how does this person operate, and how have they got there? And in fact, I remember having seen a 60 Minutes profile on her which showed her mum. And her mum had grown up terrified of the yellow peril. So going back to what I was saying before about the crucible of childhood, well, of course Pauline Hanson was going to come into the world with that view, because that’s what she imbibed.

                   What I felt came out of the Pauline Hanson interview which I thought was a useful revelation is that I think if you had Pauline Hanson as a neighbour, she’d be a bloody great neighbour. But what was really clear, as we talked about David Ettridge and David Oldfield and these men that had manipulated her and to some extent done her over in her career, is that she wasn’t dangerously bright.

                   And I’m trying to be careful in saying that. I’m not suggesting she’s not smart, she’s not intelligent, but she didn’t have that big picture smarts that’s needed to manipulate a political system. And really, I think if she, for example, had Nigel Farage’s eloquence, then her movement and her party would have a much bigger footprint in Australian politics.

                   I think, in some ways, it’s been good that it’s been Pauline Hanson that’s been the spokesperson because she’s not the best communicator in the biz. And I think a really good communicator could’ve actually carved out a bigger footprint. So, sorry, that was a very convoluted answer.

                   To go to your question about cancel culture, I’m not a fan. I’m not a fan. I really struggle with the idea that we mustn’t listen to people. To go back to Sarah Ferguson and Steve Bannon, whatever you may think of Steve Bannon and whatever you may think of Trumpism, there is no question that that man and that movement and what it represents has fundamentally changed our world and our political world, not just in America but across the Western World, and we see it in Australia.

                   So if you don’t want to sit there and try and find out what it is about not even what this man thinks, but how it is he’s managed to be this effective… It’s really worth digging into Steve Bannon to see where he got his insights into stirring up the blue-collar white male American that particularly swung in behind Trump. There’s a big lesson in that.

                   And I remember before Trump was elected President, I had a couple of running bets that he would be President. I was confident he would be. And I remember talking to a pretty experienced journalist here, who I like and who I respect. And this person said, well, you know, the people voting for Trump, they’re stupid.

                   And I said, I don’t think you’re paying attention. The life expectancy of blue-collar Americans has gone backwards, and almost alone in the Western world. They saw what happened to JFC. They saw all these people walk away with billions of Dollars while their own wages have stagnated. They have a reason to be angry. And they’re not just mindlessly cheering Trump on. They are genuinely angry.

                   So I think it’s always valuable, if uncomfortable, to pay attention. Attention must be paid, as Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. And so I’m forming a group, Andrew, which I’d like you to join, of fundamentalist moderates. And we will travel the world and slaughter anyone that won’t see both sides of the argument.

AL               So I’m guessing that such a group would be largely populated of people like you and me, middle-class, comfortably-off white men who are themselves not necessarily threatened by the sorts of values that are being raised.

                   But I’m thinking of one of the powerful speeches in the Senate, just after Pauline Hanson’s first speech, from the Asian Australian Senator, Bill O'Chee, where he said to Pauline Hanson, around Australia right now, there are Asian kids sitting in class, watching the second hand, dreading that recess is coming because they know the only place that they’re safe from racial taunts is in the classroom.

                   And in the playground, they know it’s open slather. And you’ve made it worse. Now, isn’t it easy for people in our socioeconomic position to criticise cancel culture because it’s not coming for us?

AD              But it is coming for us. It’s coming for everyone. I see cancel culture as a circular gun. Yes, you may be firing it at who you want to fire it at right now, but eventually, you’re going to fire it at yourself. Because what is the lifeblood of Western liberal democracy? It’s doubt. It’s open debate. It is the scientific method. And by that, I don’t just mean scientific discovery. It’s the ability to pick apart ideas and look at what makes them work and what doesn’t, and it’s the ability to have open discussion and not to be afraid of that open discussion.

                   And I think Australia is actually, certainly not without exception, but a pretty good example of the Western liberal experiment working pretty well. You know that old truism that Australians get the politicians they deserve. Well, by and large, when Australia has changed governments, it’s because they knew that the government they had, time was up.

                   And I think that’s because we have a Parliament where Pauline Hanson could make her speech about Asians, that incendiary opening speech, but we have a Parliament where Bill O’Chee could stand up and forcefully rebut her. We had a Parliament where Ron Boswell, from her own side of the aisle, could dedicate himself not just picking apart her arguments but picking apart the associations of her organisation.

                   I think that is healthy. And I would always rather have that Parliament and that society and that situation where, yes, people will, and are, going to say things which are deeply unpleasant, and they’ve been said in this current Parliament more times than I would like to recount, but where light is the disinfectant. I think always cast light. Don’t shut it down. Don’t shut it down. Because if it’s them, quote/unquote, being shut down today, then it’s you, quote/unquote, being shut down tomorrow. Do not create the circular gun.

AL               Andrew, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

AD              Be kind to yourself. Be kinder to yourself. And there’s that old thing that life can only be lived forwards but understood backwards. I know now that if I had been less hard on myself, professionally and personally, then I would’ve been a less anxious person and I would’ve been probably a healthier person in all senses. So yes, be kind. Be kind. If you’re kind to yourself, you’ll be kind to others.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

AD              I used to believe that a doctor’s role was always to ease suffering. And I’ve come to realise that in some instances, while that may be what they claim is their role, that’s not actually what they will do, that there are doctors for whom their personal beliefs are more important than the needs of their patients. And I find that profoundly confronting.

AL               When are you most happy?

AD              When I’m able to carve out what I call liquid time, which is time where there’s no deadlines, there’s no sharp edges of any appointments to bump into, I’m just floating. And usually, that’s when I’m with my family. And I think that’s how I would like to live the rest of my life, but it’s not working out that way just yet.

AL               This sounds like a version of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow concept.

AD              Yes, I think so. It’s a hard state to reach and it’s literally one where you just go, I could read for an hour or I could read for an hour and a half or I might have a nap or I might go for a walk or I’m just going to listen to that music or I’m just going to sit and watch the birds. It’s being deeply in that flow of time.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

AD              Liquid time is very important. It’s real renewal. I still like playing sport. I’m a fiercely competitive and completely hopeless sportsperson, but I love…

AL               You told me in 1993, you used to be picked as the 12th man for the basketball team.

AD              That’s true. And I may have dropped to even lower down the order. But the thing about sport, and I understand people who don’t like sport, but the potential of a ball yet to be hit or kicked is one of the most beautiful things there is. And I firmly believe that sport is the only thing in life where it’s possible to have a measurable moment of perfection.

                   Everything else is subjective. But in sport, there’s lines and trajectories and arcs. And you actually can, and I actually have a couple of times despite being physically inept, I have had a couple of moments of sporting perfection where I’ve thought, my god, how did that even happen?

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

AD              Yes. Like many people, I suspect, chocolate, and I love watching NRL on television. I like, at the end of a week, putting my brain in a jar and just watching the football. It’s a perfect antidote to thinking.

AL               Just Souths, or do you watch other teams too?

AD              I watch other teams but I mostly watch Souths, although anyone who knows me from Souths, including Albo… Albo reckons I’m the worst Souths supporter that ever lived because, and this is a true story, Andrew, I’m such an anxious Souths supporter. I always think we’re going to lose. And when we were having a pretty lean time, I went to see us play Canterbury at the SCG, and we won, unexpectedly. And so I raced home to watch the replay, but I was still nervous, watching the replay, that we mightn’t win.

AL               Finally, Andrew, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

AD              I think probably two people. My dad, Kit. One of the things that was very powerfully drummed into us, growing up, was that idea of there is nothing more powerful than an idea that’s time has come, and to not be afraid to speak your piece if you genuinely believe it. And then the other person, who passed away late last year, was a Victorian doctor called Rodney Syme, who is probably more responsible for the Assisted Dying laws passing in this country than anyone.

                   To very briefly tell you a story, he was a hugely respected urologist in Victoria, part of the medical royalty there. And one day, he treated a patient who was in such excruciating pain, who asked for his help to end her life. And legally, there was nothing he could do, but he was so confronted by this. He knew it was ethically wrong. He said, as a doctor, if I was in that position, I have no doubt that I would choose to end my suffering, and I could do that because I have the means to do it. So how can I deny this to a patient?

                   Anyway, long story short, Rodney then spent the next 40 years of his life, at the opprobrium of many of his profession, taken before the medical board of Australia, interviewed by police, openly assisting people to die and challenging the police and the courts to put him on trial. And his principled, meticulous activism was the most courageous, practical act of ethical performance I’ve seen in my life.

AL               Andrew Denton, performer, interviewer and wise campaigner extraordinaire, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

AD              Andrew, thank you. Thank you for some very unexpected questions.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion, I reckon you’ll love past conversations with Sheridan Harbridge, Astrid Jorgensen and Paul Grabowsky. We appreciate getting feedback on the podcast, so please tell a mate or leave a rating. It really helps others find the show. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest, to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.